Life is full of cycles. Round and round. Over and over again… Or perhaps I just notice them more often because of my professional training?
Two elements which immediately come to mind as fundamental to actuarial training are (i) models, such as financial models, and (ii) the control cycle. A key lesson drummed into us from very early on is that models are simply representations of reality, although they can be very helpful i.e. “All models are wrong. Some are useful.” They depend heavily on the chosen structure for the model and the assumptions inputted and should be stress tested to judge where the model may help and where it may fall down.
The second element (the control cycle) permeates much of actuarial thinking as it forms the basis for how actuaries add value. The basic cycle (which in itself is a model!) consists of a series of steps:
1) Identify & Specify the Problem, taking the environment and context into account
2) Develop & Implement the Solution
3) Monitor and Respond to Experience i.e. see how things evolve, improve your understanding of the problem, and update the solution
The fundamental strength of a cyclical approach is that it repeats (rather than being linear and coming to an end once the steps have been ticked off). And, while the control cycle can seem quite analytical/quantitative/technical, it can be abstracted more broadly – more on this later.
Given my professional background and personal interests, I was naturally keen to apply the ‘cycle’ approach to the world of career development. At Protagion, our approach/philosophy is to start with Knowing Yourself, then make Improvements, and Track Your Progress, getting to know yourself better in the process and making further Improvements i.e. repeating the cycle. This mirrors the control cycle above well. Knowing yourself includes understanding your aspirations, motivators and strengths, and reflecting on your career path and goals. Improving yourself involves gathering feedback and suggestions (both self-directed and external), challenging yourself and getting guidance from mentors and coaches. Tracking your progress is to ensure that the steps you are taking move you forward towards your career goals.
While it shares similar elements, a broader approach than ours is the Personal Development Cycle. Under that cyclical model, we each have a “self concept” i.e. how we see ourselves: who we are, what we do, what we’re good at. Next, something happens (positive or negative, and it may be an uncontrolled event) – some direct examples are: illness, loss of a family member, divorce, losing a job, natural disasters, financial crises, feedback from a boss, a significant raise, moving country, starting a new business… These life experiences cause us to reflect i.e. “self examination”, which leads us to new insights e.g. a commitment to spend more time with our families, or an idea to start a new business or side hustle. We then form new “personal expectations” i.e. how we want to behave, and ideally put in place supporting motivation to help us make the changes we aim for. Where our “self development” succeeds, it leads to an updated “self concept” i.e. personal growth changes us. In effect, maturing/growing is about going through cycles of learning & updating our self concept. It is important to note too that the prompt events causing us to examine ourselves can be indirect e.g. learning from others’ experiences (such as those of mentors), or exploring our inner drives and imagining possible situations (perhaps with the support of a coach). Although not as intense, learning from others can be significantly faster than direct experience, partly because there are more opportunities to learn from and we can dive into the lessons rather than living through the pain or joy of the event itself.
Control cycles: inner and outer
Back to the actuarial control cycle: the original control cycle is analytical in nature, and has been expanded into two separate, but related, cycles by Jules Gribble and Lesley Traverso. Jules is an actuary by profession (a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA) in the US and Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries of Australia (FIAA)) and Lesley has a recruitment background and is director of Talent Insights Group in Sydney. They posit that using two separate cycles “makes it clear that it is a process... to be applied in multiple and diverse areas”. The original control cycle is used as the inner cycle, focusing on technical skills: “The steps [1-3 earlier] can be rephrased as ‘What do you want to do’, ‘Attempt to do it’ and ‘See if it worked (and if not redress the issues)’.”
The second, outer cycle looks at broader issues around the inner model, and focuses more on ‘softer’ skills which pick up on behavioural, cultural and ethical matters i.e. it covers aspects like governance, interpretation and communication, and is more strategic and qualitative in nature. It requires synthesis of models used in the inner cycle and interpretation of results in a broader context to inform decision makers. The two-cycle approach implies a blend of specialist/analytical skill and generalist/interpretative skill is important – a topic explored in our past article on Specialising vs Generalising as a Career Strategy.
Application to career management
This approach of dual levels of detail in the overall process can be applied to career management and personal development too. The inner cycle concentrates on the individual actions on a regular basis, concrete steps to take (and track) towards your career goals like a promotion or new skills to master. However, the Know, Improve, Track (in Protagion terminology) framework can be applied at an abstracted, outer level too i.e. a strategic perspective on your career, including broad concepts like purpose and meaning. Do you fully appreciate your long-term resonating goals and are your compounded short-term actions leading you to achieve them?
This post has concentrated on elements from my actuarial professional background and corollaries in career development. Do similar cycles exist in other professions? Please share your thoughts in the comments. For example, I don’t recall such cycles being part of my Chartered Financial Analyst studies (barring economic cycles) – but that may be my memory… For example, reflective practice in the medical profession is one application of steps 1-3 in a continuing professional development context. Which others have you come across in your professional experiences?
Given our focus on professionals and their career goals, Protagion’s members tend to share a common experience during their lives: the challenge of studying and working simultaneously. Many professionals attest to the personal effort, dedication and diligence required in tackling their professional exams, particularly at board or fellowship level. While this pressure often arises during the earlier years of their careers, it can arise later too, if for example, they study further or write additional exams to change specialism or profession. And, once complete, the sense of accomplishment (and relief) is well-earned – every qualification is a substantial achievement to be celebrated! I know of an actuary who vowed to celebrate every week for a full year once she was done...
Two specific difficult areas which professionals reference are:
The global contagion and national lockdown responses this year are adding significantly to the stress involved in writing professional exams, including:
Even under normal circumstances the nature of your role affects your possible study schedule. For example:
Vacancies or unplanned absence of your teammates can also contribute to additional work pressures. And, especially now given the possibilities of people falling ill, study leave may be cancelled at short notice in order to deliver on corporate priorities. Some roles will also be facing additional work at present, like those in risk management or business continuity areas.
All of this work pressure is compounded with the team working from different home locations, possibly with less reliable access to the software and systems needed to operate optimally. Communication within the team and with seniors can also be more challenging.
Some suggestions for how to manage work and studying while working from home:
Do you agree? Any other suggestions to achieve both passes and promotions? Which techniques have helped you study for professional qualifications while simultaneously delivering above expectations at work? Please also share further ideas to manage the particular challenges of doing this while working from home.
A final thought: given the significant personal and professional stresses we’re all facing at the moment, one of Protagion’s coaches in South Africa has very kindly offered to support our professionals with their current worries by offering a free confidential coaching session per person. Her intention is to be of service and support others through this difficult time, including sharing what she personally practises to remain calm in stressful situations. Please contact us if you’d like to take up Gretha’s offer of a space for those in need to unpack, offload and lessen some of the emotional stress.
Some of the career goals Protagion supports our professional members with are related to transitions, including changing specialism or discipline within their profession, or even changing profession entirely. For example, we’ve shared stories before of a lawyer changing across to banking as well as a lawyer becoming a (famous) author… In this post, we share the experiences of Adam Kay, previously a doctor with the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, before he shifted to become a comedian and writer for TV and film.
In 2010, after six years of training and another six on the wards, Adam hung up his white coat and resigned from his job as a junior doctor. He set out his experiences in medicine in his often-hilarious book “This is Going to Hurt”*, described as a “no-holds-barred account of his time on the NHS front line”.
97-hour weeks. Life and death decisions. A constant tsunami of bodily fluids. And the hospital parking meter earns more than you.
I read the book myself over the Christmas break, and found its style reminiscent (to me at least) of another series of books I really enjoyed, which were set in a fictitious school much like the boarding school I attended in my teens: the “Spud” series*. While that series is primarily a nostalgic and amusing coming-of-age story, the underlying message in “This is Going to Hurt” runs far deeper...
The book is structured into chapters which follow Adam’s journey from starting work as a House Officer to becoming a Senior Registrar over a number of years, and shares anecdotes in the form of diary entries over his time at different hospitals. Read on to follow his career journey in medicine, including his reasoning for his choice of career and then of specialism, as well as the highs and lows he documented, including his burnout and decision to step away. In his introduction, Adam sets up the book with: “So here they are: the diaries I kept during my time in the NHS, verrucas and all. What it’s like working on the front line, the repercussions in my personal life, and how, one terrible day, it all became too much for me.”